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Books & Authors: UCI teacher interrupts politicking
for Australia's independence to promote his literary
work, "Woman of the Inner Sea."

For Keneally, There's No Place Like 'Oz'


IRVINE — He gave up the house he was leasing in Laguna Beach, stored his car at a friend's home and for the few days he was back in Orange County, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally checked into the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach.


That's an unusual set of circumstances for someone who was hired by UC Irvine in 1991 as a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature.

But university officials were well aware that Keneally, one of two fiction teachers in UCI's nationally acclaimed graduate Program in Writing, has a life beyond academia.

Indeed, during his first nine months at UCI, Keneally returned four times to Australia, where he is chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, a group trying to end constitutional ties with Great Britain.

Then in late January, with the independence movement gaining momentum, Keneally returned home again for more rounds of public debates.

"The Republican Movement is reaching its culmination," he said in his campus office last week during a break in a national book tour for his new novel. "Ultimately, I said to the dean and the chairman of the department that the only honest thing to do was to take the time off without pay and go back and devote the year to it."

Actually, Keneally said, the cross-country tour promoting his new novel--the Australia-set "Woman of the Inner Sea"--is "a bit of an interruption" to his political work.

But while his book tour ends this week, Keneally won't be returning to Sydney until early May: Accompanied by his daughter Jane, he'll travel next to Eritrea in Africa. (The former northernmost province of Ethiopia is having its own independence referendum, and Keneally, who wrote a book about the area's long civil war, will serve as an observer.)

From Eritrea, they'll be off to Krakow, Poland, where Steven Spielberg is filming Keneally's bestselling 1982 novel, "Schindler's List." The fact-based novel, which earned Keneally Britain's prestigious Booker McDonnell Prize for fiction, is the story of a German factory owner who saved 1,300 Jewish workers in Poland from the Nazi concentration camps.

Then, after "a few days on the set," it's finally back home to Australia (or "Oz," as Keneally calls it) for the remainder of the year.

With all that traveling, it's no wonder the peripatetic author couldn't keep from yawning several times during an interview. (Apologizing, he explained that he had done a reading the night before in San Francisco.)

Despite his busy itinerary, Keneally is continuing to write while on the road. Among his projects are magazine articles to appear in connection with a political book he has coming out soon in Australia. It's enough writing, he jokes in characteristic style, that "I'll be kept off the street and out of the bars pretty effectively."

"Woman of the Inner Sea," meanwhile, is receiving the sort of critical acclaim that has given Keneally an international reputation as one of Australia's leading literary figures.

The novel, set in Sydney and Australia's exotic outback, tells the story of Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, the unhappily married wife of a wealthy contractor--a work-obsessed man who finds more time for his new mistress and political and financial schemes than for Kate.

When a mysterious tragedy strikes their two children, the grief-haunted Kate--"The Queen of Sorrows," as her rogue priest uncle Frank calls her--flees from her coastal home in Sydney and settles in the tiny desert town of Myambagh, where she tries to change herself into a different woman.

Taking a job as a barmaid--"in training for being beneath notice"--she seeks the friendship of a kindhearted explosives expert named Jelly who saved the town during one of its periodic floods by dynamiting a railroad embankment to let the floodwaters escape.

When another destructive flood strikes and Kate suffers another loss, she travels farther into the outback with Jelly's friend Gus and his pet emu and kangaroo. In the end, with Kate's shattered soul on the mend, she returns to Sydney to confront the truth about the death of her children.


The Sunday Express in London describes "A Woman of the Inner Sea" (Nan A. Talease/Doubleday; $21) as "an Australian fable, a spiritual voyage of self-discovery . . . highly original and deeply moving." Kirkus Reviews praises it as one of Keneally's best--"an unforgettable novel by one of the finest moral imaginations in literature."

Keneally, author of 19 novels and three nonfiction books, got the idea for "Woman of the Inner Sea" in 1980.

"An American woman," he recalled, "told me a story about losing her children and then leaving everything and going into places she had never been before and trying to change herself into the woman who hadn't lost the children--and then finding out certain things about the responsibility for the death of the children and coming back and confronting the whole damn tragic mess on the grounds where it occurred. And, of course, redeeming herself in the process.

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